Kristen Wiig's lived-in and alive performance grounds this fantastic drama based on an Alice Munro short story.
Oh, no. No. No. This cannot be. They're tearing down 22 Jermyn Street in London. The whole block is going. Bates' Hat Shop, Trumper's the Barber, Getti the Italian restaurant, the Jermyn Street Theater, Sergio's Cafe, the lot. Jermyn Street was my street in London. My neighborhood.
There, on a corner near the Lower Regent Street end, I found a time capsule within which the eccentricity and charm of an earlier time was still preserved. It was called the Eyrie Mansion. When I stayed there I considered myself to be living there. I always wanted to live in London, and this was the closest I ever got.
Many years ago I was in London and unhappily staying in a hotel room so small they had to store my empty luggage elsewhere on the premises. I could sit on the bed and rest my forehead against the wall opposite. Fed up, I walked out one fine Sunday morning to find a better hotel, but not an expensive one.
Nostalgically I returned to Russell Square, where I had gone on my first visit to the great city in 1961, steered by Europe on $5 a Day. At that time I found a room and full English breakfast for £2.50 a night. You might think it a shabby hovel. I was deliriously happy. I stayed up half the night writing a letter to Edna O'Brien, an Irish novelist I had a crush on. '"Here I am in a cheap hotel near Russell Square," I wrote, "writing this letter in the middle of the night." Those words alone would convince her of my romantic genius. Alas, that long-ago hotel had been replaced by a monstrosity. At a loss about where to look next, I recalled that Suzanne Craig, a Chicago friend of mine, once informed me, "If you like London so much, you should stay at the Eyrie Mansion in Jermyn Street."
"A haunted house?"
"No, stupid. Spelled like an eagle's nest. And Jermyn isn't spelled like the country, either."
I took the tube from Russell Square to Piccadilly, and surfaced to find back-packers sprawled on the steps of Eros, still asleep after their Saturday night revels. One block down Regent and right on Jermyn and I found a small sign over the sidewalk above a doorway. It opened upon a marble corridor pointing me to a man who regarded me from eyes in a scarred face. The gatekeeper of the Eyrie. He disappeared and when I drew abreast I found he was now behind a wooden counter protecting an old-fashioned switchboard, a thick Registration ledger, and a wall of pigeon-holes.
"How may I help you, sir?"
"Is this...a hotel?"
"Since 1685, I believe. And you require a room?" He spoke in a Spanish accent.
"I'd...how much are your rates?"
He consulted a card tacked to the wall.
"For you, sir, £35. That includes full English breakfast, parlor and bedroom, own gas fire and maid. Bath en suite."
The rate was a third of what I was paying. I asked to be shown these quarters. He locked the street door. Then we ascended in an open iron-work elevator to an upper floor and I was let into 3-A. A living room had tall old windows overlooking Jermyn Street. Dark antique furniture: A sideboard, a desk, a chest of drawers, a sofa facing the fireplace, two low easy chairs, tall mirrors above the fire and the sideboard. He used a wooden match to light the gas under artificial logs.
A hall led to a bedroom in which space had been found for two single beds, a bedside table between them, an armoire, a chest, a small vanity table and another gas fireplace. In the bathroom was enthroned the largest bathtub I had ever seen, even in the movies. The fixtures were not modern; the water closet had an overhead tank with a pull-chain.
"This is larger than I expected," I said. "How many rooms do you have in all?"
Of course I took it. When I'd moved my luggage in, it was still only 10 and I rang down for the full English breakfast. The Spaniard said he would prepare it himself as soon as possible, "because Bob is indisposed." He appeared with two fried eggs, a rasher of bacon, orange juice, four slices of toast in an upright warmer, butter, strawberry jam, a pot of brewed tea and orange juice. I sat at my table, regarded my fire, poured my tea, turned on Radio 3 and read my Sunday Telegraph.
For 25 years I was to come here to Jermyn Street time and again. Now I can never return. Some obscene architectural extrusion will rise upon the sacred land, some eyesore of retail and condos and trendy dining. Piece by piece, this is how a city dies. How many cities can spare a hotel built in 1685, the year James II took the crown?
I will barely be able to bring myself to return Jermyn Street, which is, shop for shop, the finest street in London. When I approach it again I will have to enter from Piccadilly by walking down through the Piccadilly Arcade and not from Lower Regent Street. I can still attend a lunchtime concert at St. James, or call in at Turnbull & Asser the haberdashers, Paxton and Whitfield the cheese mongers, Wilton's the restaurant, and Waterstone's the book store...but I cannot and will not ever again walk past 22 Jermyn Street. The address itself will be dead.
That first morning I walked down Regent to St. James' Park, strolled around the ponds, came up by Prince Charles' residence, climbed St. James Street and returned the full length of Jermyn. I ordered tea. It consisted of tomato, cucumber and butter sandwiches, which the English are unreasonably fond of; ham and butter sandwiches, which I am unreasonably fond of with Colman's English mustard; and cookies -- or, excuse me, biscuits. The tea again was freshly brewed. I never saw a tea bag on the premises. I'd ordered as always Lapsang Souchong, which has the aroma of a freshly-tarred road at 100 yards. I find this aroma indescribably stirring. When I smell it I am walking through the twilight in Cape Town to visit my friend Brigid Erin Bates.
I had just settled in my easy chair when a key turned in the lock and a nattily-dressed man in his 60s let himself in. He held a bottle of Teachers' scotch under his arm. He walked to the sideboard, took a glass, poured a shot, and while filling it with soda from the siphon, asked me, "Fancy a spot?"
"I'm afraid I don't drink," I said.
This man sat on my sofa, lit a cigarette, and said, "I'm Henry."
"Am I...in your room?"
"Oh, no, no, old boy! I'm only the owner. I dropped in to say hello."
This was Henry Togna Sr. He appears in a Dickens novel I haven't yet read. I'm sure of it. He appeared in my room almost every afternoon when I stayed at the Eyrie Mansion. It was not difficult to learn his story.
Henry and his wife Doddy lived in the top-floor flat. He may have been the only man to live all of his life within a block of Piccadilly Circus. The Mansion was originally purchased in 1915 by his parents, who came from Italy, and Doddy's parents, who were English. The two children grew up together, married, and fathered Henry Jr., "who keeps his irons in a lot of fires." He asked me how I learned of the Eyrie Mansion. "Oh, yes! Suzanne! A lovely girl!" He discovered I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times. "You're must be joking. Tom Buck stays here. He's from the Tribune, you know." He told me that the Spaghetti House served a sole meuniere not to be equaled.
I was usually in London three times a year: In midwinter, in May after Cannes, and in summer. Henry was naturally confiding, and cheerfully indiscreet. That first day he lamented that Bob had gone missing when I wanted my breakfast. "Bob is a great trouble to me," he said. "He gets drunk every eighth day. I have implored him to make out a seven-day schedule and stick to it, but no. He will not be content unless he is throwing us off."
"I was well taken care of by the man who checked me in," I said.
"Poor fellow. He was a famous jockey in Spain. His face was burned in a stable fire while he tried to help his horses. He was one of those handsome Spanish boys. He was in a movie once by Bunuel. A film critic like yourself must have heard of him."
"Oh, I have," I said. "I wonder which film?"
"You'll never get that out of him," Henry said. "Nor will he tell you his real name. He says he's hiding out here, working overnights, when there's so little traffic because we lock the street door at midnight. He doesn't want anyone in Spain to learn where he's gone."
I thought of Jermyn Street as Ampersand Street. On Jermyn Street you will find Turnbull & Asser, where Saul Bellow bought his shirts and Gene Siskel bought his boxer shorts. You will find Paxton & Whitfield, with its window stacked high with cheeses. Ian Nairn, in his Nairn's London, lists only one shop in London -- and this is the shop. You will find Fortnum & Mason's, where you can lunch in the soda fountain or plunge into the food hall, stacked to the ceiling with anchovies, rare coffees, Oxford marmalade, Scottish shortbreads, caviar, Westphalian ham, and tins of inedible imported biscuits. Down the street a bit are Sims, Reed & Fogg, the antiquarian booksellers. and of course Hilditch & Key, Harvie & Hudson, Russell & Bromley, Crockett & Jones, New & Lingwood -- all shirt sellers. In the UK the street is synonymous with shirts.
There are shops without ampersands as well. Until it was replaced by Waterstone's the Booksellers, there was Simpson's Piccadilly, where they held a sale every January and marked down everything but the umbrellas. Dunhill's, where they never have a sale on anything. Church's English Shoes. Daks, the Burberry store, which always has its impeccably restored 1920s delivery truck parked at the curb. Floris the perfumers. Davidoff the tobacconist, where Churchill and James Bond stored their Cubans in the locked humidor.
Next door to the hotel, there is Bates the Hatters, with a big top hat hanging over the sidewalk. This was one place where you knew for sure you could find a bowler, a deerstalker or a collapsible opera topper. They have had the same cat for 50 years (although it has been stuffed and with a cigar in its mouth for most of that time). Next to Bates, Trumper's the Men's Hairdressers. I make it a practice to get my hair cut in every city where possible. Near the Eyrie I went first to Georgio's, a one-chair Greek barbershop in a mews off Duke Street. One day I followed the Archbishop of Canterbury into his chair. In the basement of Simpson's, I had my hair cut next to the former prime minister Edward Heath. Jermyn is that kind of street.
Finally I graduated to Trumpers, a magnificent shop of brass and leather, wood and mirrors, and the aroma of hair tonics with exotic spices. An aged retainer knelt at my feet unbidden to shine my shoes. He discovered I was from Chicago.
I said I did not.
"Do you like the way she sings? I do!"
I said I did as well.
"Can you sing like her? Could you? Do you think you would?"
A few steps down from Jermyn on St. James is D. R. Harris the Chemist, the oldest pharmacy in London, by appointment to H. R. H. Charles. Miss Brown has been there for some years, and I have always wanted to ask her for tea. There I always buy a pot of their Arlington shaving cream, Wiberg's Pine Bath Essence, Eucryl Strong Mint Tooth Powder, and a big transparent bar of Pear's soap. I remain suspicious of D. R. Harris' famous Pick-Me-Up, an elixir still stirred up from the 1850 recipe.
Long ago I read a book called The Toys of a Lifetime, by Arnold Gingrich, the founder of Esquire. In it he writes of his acquired tastes in clothing, automobiles, furniture, music, books, gloves, ties, aftershaves, and on and on. He spent a great deal of time on the ritual of shaving. All I ever used was lime Barbasol foam from a can and a Gillette blade.
But some old memory came stealing forward in Trumper's and Harris's. In their windows were splendid displays of razors, brushes and creams. Not a foam in sight. They sold traditional hard shaving soaps, which my father always used, favoring Mennen's. And tubes and pots of soft cremes. "You put just a little dab on your hand, wet it and apply it," Miss Brown explained. "All that foam glides the blade too far off the skin."
There were so many flavors to choose from. Rose, lavender, limes, hazelwood, almond, and Harris's signature Arlington. I bought a pot and shaved myself in the bright green pine water in the tub of the Mansion, with Radio 3 floating in from the living room. Now my life had a toy worthy of Arnold Gingrich.
Miss Brown had spoken the truth. I'd never in my life had a closer shave. One pot lasted me for months. It also came in tubes for traveling. This was the beginning of my life as a toiletries fetishist. I came home with Harris' Aftershave Milk. A proper styptic pencil. A pot of their shampoo which would do me for weeks. Their Scalp Tonic. Their Arlington bar soaps--large, larger, and OMG. Their bone toothbrushes. Their Mason & Pearson hair brushes.
A block from the Eyrie is the Red Lion, reckoned by Nairn to be the last pub in London he could do without, with the best pub interior, crystal and cut glass everywhere, thrown back on itself by the mirrored walls. If you turn off Jermyn and stroll down Duke or Old Bond Street, you will be in the heart of a district that has harbored art galleries since time immemorial--Spink's are down that way, and Chris Beedles the watercolour and illustration expert, and Peter Nahum, and the Appleby Bros.
I especially liked walking down Jermyn Street during cold and rainy January days. In the early dusk the lights from the shop windows reflected from the pavement. If the weather grew too foul, I could step into the Piccadilly Arcade, which runs from Jermyn St. up to Piccadilly. Nearby there was always a welcome at St. James Piccadilly, a Christopher Wren church which has the classical music concerts and usually has a jumble sale underway in its courtyard. The Wren at St. James was a coffee shop with excellent soups and breads, baked potatoes, and chocolate cake. It is a most wholesome place, almost next door to Tramp's, the infamous private club.
Wilton's was the most elegant place on the street to have lunch. If you were alone, you could sit at the counter and watch them see how thinly they could slice the Parma ham. On my first visit I ordered cold turkey and peaches. Yes. Cheap food and drink were to be found at Sergio's, a hole-in-the-wall in Eagle Court, which served a perfect cappuccino with cinnamon sprinkled on top. Jules' Bar was a popular place for Sloane Rangers and Hooray Henrys, who ordered expensive champagnes with their plates of baked beans on toast or bangers and mash. The bar at the Cavendish Hotel was dark and discreet, as it should be, since the original Cavendish heard the indiscretions of Rosa Lewis, the Duchess of Duke Street.
"Did you know the Duchess?" I asked Henry one day. Chaz and I had been honored by an invitation to have tea with Henry and Doddy, whose top floor flat had a flowery veranda commanding a view all the way down to Westminster.
"Everyone knew the Duchess," Henry said. "She was to be seen every day in St. James Square, walking her dogs, dressed in exquisite Edwardian fashions. Pity about her old Cavendish. The Germans got it with a bomb. During the war, it was well known that the Cavendish was the one place in London where you could find a girl or a drink any hour of the night.
"Henry!" Doddy said. "You make it sound like a brothel!"
"Sex for cash, m'dear. That's m'definition."
Henry was an enthusiast on ribald matters. One day when I was single, he poured himself a drink and said, "Roger, my boy, have I got the girl for you! Have you in your comings and goings seen the elegant brunette staying in 1-A, who is usually dressed in red? Rita Hayworth hair? High heels?"
"I don't believe I have," I said.
"Our Countess from Argentina," he said. "I want you to ask her out," he said. "Theater, a nice dinner...she's rich as Croesus, you know. You could do worse."
"Is she...looking for someone?"
"She must be. She comes here twice a year, always alone, never any company. What she needs is a young man to take her out, show her a good time. Never know what it might lead to. She has masses of time on her hands. She hardly leaves 1-A except to go to Harley Street for her shock treatments."
Sometimes in walking about the area I would happen upon Henry, always dressed to befit Jermyn Street, who knew everyone of any interest, from the maitre 'd at Wiltons to the man with the Evening Standard stand behind St. James Piccadilly. I never saw Henry in a pub, however, and despite the bottle of Teachers' under his arm I never saw him the tipsy.
One day he invited me to lunch. We walked over to a cozy, chic French restaurant in a byway near Leicester Square. Customers waiting in line were ignored as we were seated immediately. We were shown to our banquette by a handsome French woman of a certain age, whose hand, I observed, lingered longer on his shoulder than one might have expected.
Henry saw me noticing, and his eyes twinkled. He said nothing, but his eyebrows lifted in the most minute degree and if you hadn't been looking for it, you would have missed the almost imperceptible nod of his head.
"Henry!" I said.
"My dear boy" he said, "if you don't flush out the pipes, they'll run brown."
Henry was much concerned about the future of the Mansion. "Our landlady is the Queen," he told me. "The Crown Estate agents have always tried to keep the lease terms reasonable, but the price of property is making the most alarming advances. I've raised my prices as much as I dare. Henry Junior wants to take over and make this a luxury hotel. Well, it's in the blood. But it frightens me. What kinds of loans will he have to take out? How will he make the payments?"
He brought Henry Junior around to meet me. This was a handsome, pleasant man, friendly, confiding. He said he hoped to keep the charm of the Eyrie Mansion. "But at the prices I'll be forced to charge the public won't stand for this," he said, regarding the carpets frayed at the edges and the furniture somewhat nicked, and staring balefully at the gas fireplace.
As it happened, the gas fire was one of my favorite features at the Eyrie. In jet-lagged winter mornings before dawn I'd awaken to a flat chilly as I liked it, pull on warm clothes, and venture out into the crisp night to walk up to the newsagent on Piccadilly. I'd buy the Telegraph, Independent, Guardian and Times, and a large cup of hot coffee from an all-night shop around the corner. With these I would return to the mansion, tune in Radio 3, sit in my low easy chair before the fire, and dream wistfully that such was my life.
The fire was never left to burn when unneeded; the maids saw to that. But it held promise of warmth after a brisk walk. Fires, I decided, were a source of heat, not merely, like central heating, its presence. There must be something deep within our racial memory that is pleased by being able to look at what is making us warm.
One winter's day I set out to walk across Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens to Hyde Park Corner. It was raining, but that was fine with me; I had my Simpson's umbrella. What I didn't know was that the gates to the park were locked at dusk. This I discovered on a notice inside the gate I'd intended to use. I could see the traffic hurrying past up Serpentine road from the direction of the Royal Albert Memorial. There were a lot of taxis.
Unfortunately, an iron fence topped with spikes stood between me and the road. It began raining harder. I scouted and found a low tree branch that might just allow me to stand atop the railing. That meant climbing a hill slippery with wet grass. I failed twice, and became smeared with mud. Digging in the point of my umbrella, I finally made my way up the hill and onto the limb and balanced on the fence, but it was a good leap down to the sidewalk and I could easily imagine myself with a sprained ankle. Or worse: Impaled on the fence.
Pedestrians hurried past, apparently not seeing me. I tried calling for help. I was ignored. Well, if you were hurrying through the park in the rain and saw a fat man with a soaked coat, smeared with mud, balanced on a fence with a filthy umbrella, what would you do?
"Hey, look, it's Roger Ebert!" an American kid said. He was with a group of friends. "No way! Is that really you?"
"Yes it is," I said. If I had been Prince Charles I would have answered to "Roger Ebert."
"Far out dude! What are you doing up there?"
"Trying to get down," I observed.
They helped me down and asked for my autograph, which was gladly supplied. I opened my umbrella, hailed a cab, and was at 22 Jermyn Street in ten minutes. That was one of the occasions when I lighted the gas fire and treasured it beyond all reason. After warming up, I filled the big tub for a bath. It was deep, and as long as I was tall. I tinted it a bright green with Wilberg's Pine Bath Essence, and inhaled warm pine and reflected that you are never warmer than when you have been cold.
Word came in 1990 that Henry Junior had taken over operations and closed the hotel for renovations. In his announcement, he wrote, "I agreed to buy the hotel from my father, famous for his wonderful eccentricity." Chaz and I stopped in to inspect. He was filled with enthusiasm. He was fitting it out elegantly with new rugs and draperies, sofas and chairs, beds, the lot. Of course he discontinued the gas fires. I was pleased to see he was keeping the old furniture, purchased in 1915 by his grandparents. "After we had it refinished," he said, "it turned out to be very good stuff. You couldn't touch it today."
Henry Junior said the workmen had sorted through the memories of three generations. In the basement, he said, he discovered a cache of naughty French postcards from the 1930s. Inside a walled-over hall closet on the second floor he found his mother's small hoarded supply of sugar from the days of rationing in World War Two. Writing of the basement just now, I recall that never during all those years did I ever figure out where the hotel's kitchen was.
The Eyrie Mansion was renamed 22 Jermyn Street. Well, "Eyrie Mansion" was possibly not an ideal name for a hotel. Chaz and I stayed there many times. I liked it, she adored it. When I said I missed the gas fire that you lit with a match, she gave me one of those looks I got when I said I would rather drive a 1957 Studebaker than any newer car. Or eat in a diner than a trendy restaurant. Or wear jeans. You know those looks.
As the luxurious 22 Jermyn Street, the hotel prospered. Croissants and cappuccino were now served as an alternative to Full English Breakfast. There'd be a flower on the tray. Clients included movie stars and politicians, who valued its privacy and its absence of a lobby. Doddy and Henry Senior would have been proud. But in Autumn 2009 Henry Junior wrote to us: "Sadly the lease has expired and the greater part of the city block in which the hotel is located is to be redeveloped by the Crown Estate as a project named St James's Gateway, over the next 2 or 3 years. Like much else in London, it is planned that this very comprehensive and handsome project will be completed in time for the Olympic Games in 2012." Just what Olympic guests will be looking for in London. One more god-damned comprehensive and handsome project.
In the mid-1990s, after Cannes, Chaz and I were staying at Champney's health farm in Tring. One morning the Telegraph carried news of Henry Senior's death. I took an early train to London and arrived in time for the funeral at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Soho Square, where Henry had served as an usher for decades. So much was made of Henry Senior's devotion to the Church that I could imagine his eyes twinkling. In Catholic churches they don't customarily ask friends of the departed to come forward and share a few words. It's just as well. Had I been called upon, I have no idea how I would have begun, or how long it would have taken me to finish. And I didn't really even know Henry that well.
Just now I went looking for a quote by Charles Dickens to close with. Nothing would do. I think perhaps only an entire character will do. Perhaps Mr. Pickwick, with a touch of Mr. Micawber and a dash of David Copperfield's jolly friend Mr. Dick.
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